Professionals note that separation anxiety; the fear in young children of separating from parents, is a normal phenomenon which usually stops by the age of three.
Babies experience Separation Anxiety first, around 9-18 months. They have bonded with their parents and miss them when parting.
Most children will grow out of this type of anxiety by the time they are ready for preschool, but for some, the feeling lingers. About 3% of children will continue to experience separation anxiety into elementary school. During adolescence, perhaps surprisingly, the percentage is a bit higher; around 8% of teens aged 13+ experience separation anxiety.
One of the hallmarks of separation anxiety, avoidance, manifests in young children as not wanting to go to school at all. This can lead to late arrivals, leaving school early, erratic attendance, or even throwing a tantrum upon arrival at school.
Here are some tips for helping to alleviate separation anxiety:
TIP #1. Mother/Father Knows Best… You can’t offer what you don’t have, so before you reassure your child, make sure you reassure yourself! Recall why you chose the school you chose… maybe it was the vibe you felt, the evidence academic rigor, the sense of community, the social support, the reputation, etc. The selection of a school is a parent’s decision. Trust the choice that you made and proceed from there.
TIP #2. Put Your Game Face On… Young children are very good at reading their parents’ emotions. If your body language and facial expressions reveal that you are getting nervous about the resistance you may be expecting (or dreading!) they will pick up on it, and a vicious cycle begins. Take a breath, and never let them see you sweat.
TIP #3. Rituals Bring Comfort…Create a routine that your child will come to anticipate and enjoy. Plan it together, if possible. Perhaps you create a special handshake – some children like “five kisses and a hug”. Whatever it is, agree upon it, and do it every time, without fail. Consider having the same parent to bring the child to school every day.
TIP #4. Keep it Short and Sweet… Although it may feel counterintuitive, if your child begins to cry, the faster you can separate, the better. Outside of school you are the one who offers comfort and support when your child is upset. At school, the teachers’ job is to provide this support. This allows other trusted adults to become the “object of attachment”. It’s a silent communication to your child that you trust the adults and that your child is safe with their teachers.
TIP #5. Validation is Essential…Anxiety is a big feeling. There may also be fear, sadness and other emotions popping up. Help your child to identify what those feelings are, and then validate them. This is best accomplished ahead of time, but in the moment, it can also be helpful to use words like “I can see that you are a bit nervous about going to class this morning. We had a really fun weekend, didn’t we?” It’s important to let your child talk or worry or cry for a few minutes before you offer encouragement. Then you can help refocus attention, perhaps with a gentle reminder of something fun they will be doing in the evening.
TIP #6. Create a Photo Journal… Consider documenting the steps of your child’s morning routine in a journal of photos:
Page one: a photo of your child sleeping with the caption SLEEP TIME.
Page two: a photo of your child on their bed, awake with the caption: GOOD MORNING!
Page three: a photo of your child brushing their teeth with the caption: TIME TO BRUSH…
Page four: breakfast table
Page five: combing hair
…all the way to a photo with the car: ON THE WAY TO SCHOOL, then a picture of your child at the classroom door with the teacher: GOOD MORNING, TEACHER! Etc.
When your child is struggling, pull out their picture journal and “read” the story together. This can give children an experience of making order out of the steps to their routine and taking comfort in being able to walk through them with you. The final page could be a picture of pickup time with the caption: PARENTS ALWAYS COME BACK!
Finally, here are some worksheets (hyperlinks) to help tackle the anxiety that may arise in your child, perhaps geared more to the Primary ages of 6-12 (these come from Positive Psychology.com):
- My Body and My Worries: This worksheet gives children the opportunity to draw the sensations that their body experiences when they face anxiety or worry.
- Labeling Your Feelings: This activity gives children the opportunity to write down or draw out their worries about a specific situation that is scaring them.
- Best and Worst: This exercise is aimed at giving children a chance to identify the pros and cons of a frightening situation. Drawing, writing, or a combination of both can be used to help them complete this worksheet.
- When I’m Scared: A worksheet that children can work through with a grown-up they trust to help explore their fears.
As a former teacher of students who were 6, 7 and 8 years old, I can say that I had number of students who dealt with separation anxiety in their elementary years over the course of my teaching. And it could be overwhelming for a parent when their child was in full meltdown mode. I can also say that miraculously, when a parent left for their day, within five to ten minutes, nine out of ten students would completely stop being in reaction. They would take a deep breath, look around, see their peers quietly working, and make a work choice.
Most children who experience anxiety will grow out of it once a new routine becomes familiar. In the meantime, giving children some feeling of control over a new situation by using some of the tips mentioned above can be really helpful in making it all a lot easier and more manageable for you and your child.